The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.
Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.
The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.
Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .
These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .
It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.
My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)
In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)
Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.
And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .
I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)
The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)
This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.
Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.
Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).
Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.
It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.
. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)
I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.
And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.
Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.
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